Thursday, August 1, 2013

Passing the Test, But Missing the Point (The Wolverine)

Surprisingly, it didn’t suck.

Actually, even more than that, I would go so far as to say that The Wolverine was actually pretty good. Not great, mind you, but good. A solidly entertaining movie that made enough sense and had enough characterization that you were engrossed throughout the whole story. Would I watch it again any time soon? No, probably not. But it was good.

That’s not what we’re going to talk about today. Interesting as it is, the shocking not-suckiness of this film is not our topic of conversation. (I say that it’s shocking mostly because the trailers looked truly awful, and the last Wolverine movie was abominable.)

What I actually want to discuss is the one thing that seemed so incredibly commonplace when I was watching the film, but I realized afterwards was so weird. You see, this is a movie that actually managed to pass the Bechdel Test. But it still didn’t feel like a good movie for women. I would say that this is the film that proves to me that passing really isn’t everything.

As a recap, for those of you who didn’t click the link, the Bechdel Test is a basic gauge to determine how much women factor into the plot of a movie. It’s a pretty decent baseline, and it’s a very low bar. That having been said, it’s truly shocking how many movies fail. The test is comprised of three questions. First, are there two female characters in the movie who have names? Second, do they speak to each other? Third, about something other than a man?

Like I said, most movies fail, but The Wolverine, shockingly, didn’t. I say shockingly because most superhero movies, even ones with compelling female characters, like Avengers or Dark Knight Rises or Amazing Spiderman, usually fail. Heck, the only superhero movie I can think of in recent memory (since 2005) that passed was Thor.

So it is both weird and awesome to see a superhero flick that passes the test. That it’s a movie with a male lead character and a storyline that didn’t actually require any female characters just makes it all the more heartening.

But. There’s always a but.

While there were a lot of incredibly interesting, influential female characters in the movie (four major characters alone), and they did talk to each other sometimes, and half of them weren’t even white, I still feel like something was missing. That something was respect.

Okay, that sounds weird, but hear me out. Of the four women who factored majorly into the plot, two of them were Wolverine’s love interests. Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), who appeared in dream sequences, but actually played a key role in the emotional arc of the film, was always depicted in a white, satin nightgown, lying in bed with Logan.

Kind of awkward when you remember that she and Logan were never actually really together in this film universe, and that their relationship is largely one-sided, on his side. She was, after all, married.

But putting the creepiness of Jean’s appearances aside, there is still the other romantic figure to contend with: Mariko (Tao Okamoto), the granddaughter of a man that Wolverine saved in World War II. Already there is the issue that Mariko is largely defined by the men in her life, but since that is problematized in the film itself, I don’t see a need to complain about it here. Rather, I would like to contend that she is an interesting character, but her character arc and motivations are completely glossed over in the film, so much so that we really don’t know anything about her or who she will choose to be when the movie is over.

It’s kind of distressing when you look at it that way, because so much of the film is about Mariko needing to be protected so that she can finally have her voice heard, only for us to have no idea what that voice might want to say. Or even sound like.

It’s like Blood Diamond, where the whole film is about the disenfranchisement of Djimon Honsou’s character, and at the end, when he finally gets to say his piece, and tell everyone what is really going on, when he at last gets to speak for himself, the camera cuts to black.

I hate that scene.

The other two female characters in the film are both more and less distressing than Jean and Mariko. While Wolverine’s love interests are generally depicted wearing white, and clean, simple clothes, showing their purity and simple beauty, these next two ladies are much more colorful, covered in patterns and prints, with wild designs and bright colors. I don’t think that’s accidental, nor do I think it’s unintentional that they show a lot more skin.

These other two women, Yukio (Rila Fukushima) and the Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova), are also defined by their connections to the men in their lives, but theirs is a definition of opposition. Yukio, Mariko’s childhood friend, is constantly told that she has no place in Mariko’s life any longer, and that she is a childhood doll that Mariko has outgrown.

This had a lot of potential to be incredibly interesting as a character development, but sadly it was referred to several times but never really developed. Yukio repeatedly shows alarming intelligence, a prodigious ability with weaponry, hacking, and logic, and keeps on saving the day, but we don’t really know why. We especially don’t know why she chooses to go with Wolverine in the end. We know nothing about her, and I can’t figure out why.

Similarly, we really know absolutely nothing about the Viper. Or rather, we know that she is helping the bad guy or is the bad guy or is in some way bad, but we don’t know why. We don’t know what she hopes to gain from it. And we really don’t know why she feels the need to prance around in skintight leather catsuits. I mean yeah, she has a slammin’ bod, but seriously? Those things look like they chafe.

It’s an overall problem. While this movie does meet the minimum requirements to pass the Bechdel Test, it fails to address the concerns the Bechdel Test was created to examine. Are the female characters necessary to the story, and are they represented that way?

In this movie, I have to say that they aren’t. Sure, they’re important to the story. Yukio is the one who gets Wolverine to Japan, and Mariko is the macguffin they’re all passing around, and Viper is the bad guy, and Jean facilitates the emotional arc, but none of it really matters. None of these characters make any impact emotionally, because we never know who they are. Not even a little bit.

In fact, we know more about Mariko’s childhood ex-boyfriend than we do about her. It’s deeply sad, but sadly true.

I guess what I’m saying is that passing isn’t everything. If you want to actually create a movie that represents women well, then make sure that in your effort to include them, you don’t forget to make them people too. It doesn’t help all that much to say that yes, we have quite a few female characters, but they’re all either love interests or sexualized stereotypes, and nothing of value is added by their presence.

We want female characters who are people too. So while The Wolverine is a perfectly fine movie overall, I have to give it a slap on the wrist for its treatment of women. Yes, there are a lot of them, and that makes me happy. But there’s quantity and then there’s quality, and I refuse to sacrifice one for the other. I shouldn’t have to.

But it really was a good movie. I promise.


  1. Viper was so unnecessary. So was Jean Grey, I felt beat over the head by that whole thing, the only time it was well done was before Wolverine went to the vet. I felt like Yukio went with Wolverine at the end just because she wanted to go on adventures. That's the best reason, anyway.

    You also have a good point with Mariko, I liked the relationship with Wolverine, it was actually somewhat subtle (as opposed the the Jean Grey thing which I was being bludgeoned with) but you're right, it's shown through his eyes without any implication about Mariko's actual goals in any capacity. (But she did save his life and wasn't helpless which made me happier)

    1. I really didn't get why we needed Jean at all. It felt like lazy writing. Viper's motivations were utterly confusing and vague, and ultimately, I didn't understand anything any of the women did in the movie. Argh.

    2. It also nerfs the growing up he did in X-Men II when he accepted that yes she actually did love Scott and no she wasn't going to run off with him. Although Last Stand already did that I suppose.

    3. On the whole, superhero movies tend to be a bit awful about emotional continuity. But at least the Last Stand continuity was screwy because Cyclops had to be written out. I mean, he was written out for a very stupid reason, but still. It explains a little.

  2. Off topic, but on this site those "type this strong of letters to make sure you're not a spambot" tests *always* give me something that's pronounceable (well, I think there was one time they didn't, but that's one). That doesn't happen with any other site, and I'm vaguely curious if it's something you've deliberately set up somehow.

    1. it's true, I can never read them here. The words that come up make no sense.

    2. Hmmm. That's weird. I literally have no control over that. I just set it so people couldn't post anonymously, because spam is a bitch. I should see if there are settings.

  3. Great article and i completely agree on most of your points.
    I was incredibly glad that Yukio and Mariko were female characters who were both friendly and had, albeit short, conversations that did not revolve around male Love-interests.

    I thought the concept of the Viper was really cool, even the outfits. It was just shitty that we learned nothing about her.. the antagonist in general was what brought this movie down.

    1. The Viper had a lot of potential, I agree. She just never delivered. And I still have no idea what she wanted. Like at all. Also, I have no idea why Yashida wanted to be immortal. And these things bother me.